Posts Tagged ‘politics’


Entering the political wilderness?

February 5, 2015

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Those who know me well know I am something of a political geek. For a long time now I’ve lectured my apolitical friends about the importance of getting involved, because I truly believe we get the politics we deserve. But the fact is, while I still believe this, I feel more and more dubious about channeling my commitment to being involved in politics into supporting a mainstream party.

Having attempted (and failed, by 100 bloody votes, since you asked) to get elected locally myself last year, I can’t shake the feeling that trying and succeeding to get elected has the massive downside of shriveling people up. Just look at the twitter feed of any political hopeful. Endless ‘selfies’ (“look, we’re really down with the kids!!”) on the campaign trail, RTs of party HQ messages, not a single personal view expressed at any cost (Jamie Reed MP, @jreedmp, may be an honourable exception to this). Beyond Twitter, and more significantly, I fear those people who are really serious about getting elected are forced (or choose??) to give up their opinions, their social lives and their family commitments.

The kind of blind promise you’re expected to give to your ‘tribe’ risks making our politicians brittle, bland robots, focused on their opponents in Westminster rather than on their constituents. We, the public, are treated to repeatedly parroted lines cooked up by youthful yet frazzled special advisors, in language that’s supposed to convey ‘I get it’ (Cameron’s ‘rolling up his sleeves’; Miliband’s dropped ‘t’s). And, as happened to Ed Balls the other night, these dessicated people are inevitably and constantly on the defensive, terrified that at any moment they might trip up and say something they shouldn’t, leading to a media frenzy whipped up by bored lobby journalists who get their kicks off making our MPs look opportunistic, jumped up and ideally corrupt.

Is this really what we want from our politics? In the past I might have asserted that however bad it is, any mast is better than no mast when it comes to pinning your colours (as an aside, check out this great site if you’re trying to work out where you stand). But as time goes on I find myself becoming more idealistic. It’s not just that I’d like a more functional way of doing politics: we need one urgently, unless we want the non-voters to become the biggest ‘party’ in town (only 41% of people say they would vote if there were a general election tomorrow, the lowest number ever recorded).

We need politicians who aren’t afraid to argue for their beliefs, and can do so publicly without fearing accusations of trying to oust their leader or split their party. We need politicians who are able to raise their families alongside their work without asking their partners to do more of that hard work than is fair. And we need politicians who inspire through their authenticity rather than revile through their predictable conformity to the ways of the political elite.

Anyway I can’t let this post just be a rant. So let me share two things that give me hope today.

First, the incredible surge in support we’re seeing for the Green Party. Anything that forces the Labour party to think long and hard about their radicalism and ambition gets my support. As George Monbiot argues so well here, we cannot create a successful alternative to mainstream politics until we are able to vote for it.

Second, and this really does excite me, is the creation of the Alternative Party by Uffe Elbaek. Uffe is an amazing guy, an idealist who had a go at ‘doing politics’ in a mainstream way in Denmark. This new border-crossing party is in part his response to that experience. I can only love a political party that puts this at the heart of their manifesto:

The Alternative is curiosity. About developing our local societies, cities and nations. We want to take back ownership of the economy and of democratic decisions. At our workplaces and in the places where we live our lives. Without losing the global vision for the responsibility for finding mutual solutions with our neighbours – including those who live on the other side of the world.

Which begs the question: how do I best apply my commitment to being politically engaged in this new world? It feels like it might be time to walk away from mainstream politics. I wonder all the time whether more direct forms of participation are now our best hope for knitting democracy back into our everyday lives. But is that really the right thing to do? And where do I go from here? Answers on a postcard please.

(if you’re interested, the T-shirt in the picture came from Cassie Robinson’s brilliant Civic Shop currently residing in Somerset House. Go and visit.)


real world economics

June 9, 2009

i knew that me and economics didn’t go well together when i tried to study it at A-level. It just seemed so confident in itself, and its view of the world was not one that i recognised: it was too rigid and linear; too eager to present an objective view of Facts. But these sorts of criticisms make me sound like a tree-hugging sandal wearer, so I’m glad that I took some time out this morning to listen to the first of Harvard Professor Michael Sandal’s BBC Reith Lectures.

His argument can, I think, be summarised by his statement that ‘markets leave their mark on social norms’. His brief introduction (looking forward to the development of the themes in later lectures) was simply that we cannot separate the study of economics from broader social, moral and political questions. To only consider what is the right thing to do from the economic perspective (e.g. efficiency) denies the consequences of introducing market mechanisms to new sites of society. They are not morally neutral.

Two good examples he gave. First, the childcare providers who began to charge parents for collecting their kids late. Economists would assume that incentives such as avoiding this fine would mean that there would be fewer late parents. What actually happened was that more parents started to be late. They no longer felt they were putting the teachers out by making them stay late, but instead that they were paying for a service. Second, on blood donation. Sandel argues that we need to consider the social consequences of turning something which had been a gift into a commodity. What does that say about society and its values? It’s not that he was saying we shouldn’t ever commoditise stuff – but rather, that we should recognise and debate the consequences of doing so.

Sandel is not alone in arguing that the dismal science becomes a whole lot less dismal when we start talking about political economics – situated in the real world, where morals and values are given parity with efficiency. Paul Ormerod’s brilliant books – The Death of Economics and Butterfly Economics – make this case powerfully too, arguing that we have allowed economists to believe that they can use their rules and theories to predict the world and to decide how to act. Ormerod believes this betrays economics’ roots, as a science that sought to understand and describe the real world as it unfolded.


coproduction and communes

February 24, 2009

lewes-poundwhen I was out in LA I managed to fit in a catch-up lunch with John Thackara, whose book In the Bubble was a real source of inspiration for me when it was published a couple of years ago. Our conversation turned from sustainable design to communes, as we turned over the question of what tools and support people need in order to make it easier to share resources. Wannastartacommune is an inspired site, from its name to its content, on this question.This isn’t about ethereal or abstract debates about the principles of coproduction, but rather, simple legal, technological and practical issues that might enable groups of older people to pool assets in order to make them go further, for example.

And so to the bulk-buying project that has grown out of our Just Coping work in SILK. We’re currently working with the Digital Inclusion Team at CLG to business case an idea from our workshops with residents of the Parkwood Estate in Kent to make it easier for people to club together to buy stuff they need – simple, but genius, and it has the potential to make everyday life much better.

I was mentioning this project this morning when I met up with the new economics foundation. They are doing some fantastic work on coproduction and sharing resources. This pamphlet, by their new head of social policy Anna Coote, is a piece of original thinking that connects up the agenda around sharing resources for environmental and social reasons. nef are building a really interesting set of projects exploring different aspects of how to put coproduction into action. Just a few examples of this include:

Work on alternative currencies. The picture on this blog is of the ‘Lewes pound’ – an currency that John Thackara alerted me to, and designed to incentivise Lewes residents to shop locally. L from nef also told me about other areas who are developing alternative currencies, not only to support local businesses, but also to facilitate timebanking and to put a value on non-monetary resources people can contribute to their communities – for example Brixton should be getting their own pound later this year.

Work on procurement and commissioning models. There’s an essay about nef’s work with Camden on this issue in the pamphlet I’ve been editing for IDeA – will post this up once it’s launched at the end of March. Other councils such as Kirklees are also trying to find ways of embedding the principles of coproduction into the way in which they commission services – no mean feat. This is the detail where the devil resides. If we don’t get it right coproduction will remain a thinktank idea rather than a practical agenda.

Work on measuring value and impact. There are various models out there for measuring impact at an individual level – not least the stuff on ‘my metrics’ that J and I wrote about in Journey to the Interface – but the real prize will be in helping local councils and other public service organisations measure value from coproduction models in new ways. There’s a real tension between trying to monetise or turn everything into numbers to make measurement easier, and asserting that some value just can’t be converted in this way. Again, nef’s work on the social return on investment is pretty advanced here, but there’s lots more to be done.

Work on the core values of coproduction. One of the things we discussed this morning is the fact that it’s too easy for the underlying value system of coproduction (about mutuality, respect, recognition) to get lost in its translation to a ‘mainstream’ political agenda – see for example what has happened with self-directed support, which too often is simply seen as individual budgets. In my view, the only way we can come up with a credible and authentic account of what coproduction means is to draw on emerging practice across many sectors, from housing to social care to policing. How can we connect people together who are pioneering in this field, in order to give them even more rocket fuel to keep going?


taxed by taxation

February 2, 2009

if I understood half the stuff in the papers about what exactly precipitated the global financial crisis I’d be ten times cleverer than I actually am. But still, I’ve been reading some fascinating and depressing stuff about tax and wealth recently. So thanks to my city-based friend T for kindly totting up the bonuses all the major banks in the UK have paid out so far this year. His figure – which he freely admits is unlikely to be fully accurate – comes to just over £30bn. Incredible.

A more careful analysis of corporate tax avoidance and the impossible complexity of today’s tax system comes in the form of this briliant piece in the New York Review of Books, by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. The main focus of the story is on the libel case that Tesco took to the Guardian after they published an inaccurate story. But along the way Rusbridger also highlights some eye-watering facts about corporate tax avoidance, such as HMRC’s estimate that today’s ‘tax gap’ (the amount avoided by individuals and corporations) is up to £13.5bn a year. According to the TUC, it would take average income tax contributions from £2.4m households to make up this shortfall. Or, again from HMRC’s analysis, the fact that 25% of the 700 biggest firms in the UK paid absolutely no corporate tax in 2005-6.

How can we have any kind of legitimate debate about tax and redistribution if the richest businesses and individuals of the UK can effectively exempt themselves? And surely the money spent by government on reclaiming benefits overpayments (which, at £1.9bn, is dwarfed by these kinds of figures incidentally) would be better spent on closing these loopholes and ensuring that our largest corporations pay their way?

For Rusbridger, one of the major reasons these have not become issues worthy of public outrage is the sheer complexity of the system. Papers can’t afford to hire in the expertise necessary to make sense of (and expose) the tangle of ‘innovative financial products’ firms are using today. And even if they could, it’s just too complicated to explain in a way that any of us lot with busy lives and overly full heads can make sense of.

The Guardian must be brave, because despite having all that law flung at them by Tesco, and despite the nerves they must have about whether they can make this stuff accessible enough, today they launched a major new investigation into these issues, which they will be reporting on over the coming weeks. Worth keeping an eye on.


the good society

February 2, 2009

there are loads of reports and studies around at the moment that are making roughly the same set of points, albeit coming from different perspectives and each with their own particular focus. The key question they all ask is ‘what constitutes the good life today?’. And broadly speaking, the answer seems to be that we need to be less materialistic, invest more in our emotional welfare, and as a crucial part of that, we need to recognise and value the importance of relationships more. As Richard Layard argued on the Today programme this morning (I summarise) – we need to become less self-regarding and individualist. We are entering an era where how we treat others, and how we relate to one another, is increasingly important for our wellbeing – and that has a whole host of public policy implications. (you can listen again to what he actually says here)

Layard was speaking about a report published today by the Children’s Society. A Good Childhood is a pretty exhaustive report, pulling together an inquiry which took in the views of over 30,000 kids, parents and professionals. I can’t help but feel that the language is a little bit old-school – but nevertheless, an interesting set of conclusions and some recommendations to boot. Worth a read.

Other projects working on similar stuff include the interim report of the Young Foundation’s bi-annual mapping project of ‘unmet needs’. They argue that needs are a better way in to understanding society than other prisms such as poverty (which is stigmatising) and inequality (which they argue is too far removed from our everyday experiences to be a meaningful category of analysis). At this interim stage they group unmet needs into four key categories:

  1. Psychological needs – self-esteem, competence, autonomy and ability to form relationships
  2. Care and support – there are mismatches between people’s need for care and the provision of it
  3. Financial strain – which they call a ‘trump’ need – in other words, debt and financial trouble lead to a wide range of other needs
  4. Consumer and legal protection – when the market is expected to provide for many needs, consumers ability to meet those needs rest of their ability to navigate their consumer rights and legal frameworks.

Beyond these two studies, there’s Compass, who are running a major participative project called How to Live in the 21st Century – looking forward to the stuff that comes out of their regional events here; and the Fabians who are running a brilliant project on poverty and inequality in an age of affluence, to mark the centenary of Beatrice Webb’s report to the Poor Law Reform Commission.

What’s refreshing about all these studies is their willingness to grapple with things that too many politicians have given up on. Whether or not I agree with all their conclusions (and I don’t) I hope that we see more of this kind of stuff in the next few months…


polly toynbee on the tories and charity

January 11, 2009

picture-2while I’m on the theme, there was a great piece by Polly Toynbee in yesterday’s Guardian about the impact of the recession on charities. One of the points she makes is about the role of charities in achieving social outcomes. As I mentioned before, the Tories talk of their role as some kind of alternative to state provision. In fact, as Toynbee argues, in recent years, government has been the single biggest ‘donor’ to the third sector. In other words, it’s not the state vs. the third sector; it’s how they work together that matters. This is a theme we spent a lot of time on when I was at Demos – you can read an excellent pamphlet, still relevant despite being ancient in thinktank terms, by John Craig and Paul Skidmore here.


‘evidence based’ policy

December 29, 2008

thanks to JW over at Mastersvo for a link to the clip from Yes Minister about how government is so very good at building an evidence base for, well, pretty much anything really. Here’s the video, worth a watch:

It reminds me of the infamous speech Louise Casey made, where she eloquently expressed her frustration at the government’s desperation to find the ‘truth’ in evidence, in order to work out what to do. I can’t say it better than her:

There is an obsession with evidence-based policy … If No 10 says bloody ‘evidence-based policy’ to me once more I’ll deck them one and probably get unemployed…

I think that ever since I studied history, I’ve been intrigued about how the truth is presented. I was probably a deeply annoying student in my constant quest for ‘evidence’ that might add up to a rather different reality. In many ways what I was trying to do with Kent was to encourage the council to expand its definition of evidence: of course, basing policy on the realities of people’s lives is vital, and difficult; but it becomes almost impossible if evidence is too narrowly defined and constrained to consultation results, polling and anecdotes from the politicians’ doorstep conversations. All of these things are useful but we need a broader way of contextualising evidence about attitudes – situating them both in a wider social and economic environment, and coupling what people say with actual behaviour or implicit needs or issues.

One particularly memorable moment I had a few years back was presenting a local project, where we’d used systems thinking to elicit insights, to a government department. The Director got more and more agitated, demanding to know what our ‘evidence’ was. After an extended and deeply uncomfortable conversation it became clear that his definition of evidence involved what the academics thought, and polling data. In my view, government will always be an art rather than a science, and to that end, we need to get much better at marshalling all sorts of different evidence – polling and consultation still have their place, but ethnographic and design techniques, modelling and systems thinking need to become more important. Many social issues are now recognised as being about how we relate to one another, as well as how we as individuals relate to government, so those techniques that take account of context as well as beliefs should be much more significant than they currently are…